Established in 2001, the High Falls Film Festival was originally conceived with the intent of highlighting the contributions of women in all aspects of the film industry. But in 2010, the festival shifted gears, renaming itself the 360 | 365 Film Festival. For two years, the festival drifted away from its original mission, instead opting to function as an all-purpose film festival, open to independent filmmakers of all types.
After going on hiatus for 2012, the High Falls Film Festival returns this week under its original name, and with a renewed focus on its founding mission. The 2013 edition of the festival, headed by new executive director Mary Howard, will run April 18-21. The line-up, curated by new programming director Kate Dobbertin Bernola, boasts more than 50 independent, foreign, documentary, and short films from 12 countries around the world, all in their own unique ways shining a well-deserved spotlight on women in film.
What follows is a quick take on 10 selections from this year's festival. For the complete schedule, visit the festival's website at highfallsfilmfestival.com, which also has ticket information, as well as a full list of all the events, panel discussions, and parties.
"The Girls in the Band"
It's no secret that we Rochesterians love some jazz, so kicking off this year's festival with this fascinating musical documentary, focusing on the early female pioneers of the art form, was probably a no-brainer. The film serves well as a primer on the subject, beginning just prior to World War II, when all-female jazz groups like The Sweethearts of Rhythm were seen as little more than novelty acts, and moving all the way up through the rise of contemporary artists like Esperanza Spalding.
Director Judy Chaikin treats all her subjects with reverence, especially the older women. She shows them for the trailblazers they were, fighting for their right to follow their dreams in a field that was seen largely as a man's domain, and in so doing, paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps. While the film too often relies on the documentary crutch of talking-head interviews, the real highlight here is the plethora of performance clips showcasing these gifted musicians who prove that gender is no definer of true talent.
(Screens Thursday, April 18, Little 1, 6:30 p.m.; Friday, April 19, Cinema, 4 p.m.)
"California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown"
Known as "The Grandfather of Modern California," Governor Pat Brown's two terms (from 1958 to 1966) marked a time of incredible change in an era that was particularly crucial to the development of the state as we know it today. Directed by Brown's granddaughter, Sascha Rice, the film perhaps naturally ends up being somewhat biased. The harshest criticisms the film makes are that he was fair-minded to a fault, making him come across as wishy-washy, and that he was possibly too devoted to his family. But it's hard not to be impressed with what Brown was able to accomplish, setting up key components of California's infrastructure, and one can't help thinking would have been all but impossible in today's age of political gridlock.
Everyone from Tom Brokaw to Nancy Pelosi and Arnold Schwarzenegger provide commentary, explaining how the governor's career set the standard for all who were to follow, including Pat's son, Jerry Brown, the current governor of California. Director Rice keeps things interesting (even for a generally politics-averse moviegoer like myself), an even more impressive accomplishment considering that this is her first foray into documentary filmmaking.
(Screens Friday, April 19, Cinema, 1:15 p.m.)
"Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel"
Blessed with a sublimely charismatic subject, Lisa Immordino Vreeland's glossy documentary captures fashion icon Diana Vreeland's larger-than-life personality, bringing the legend to life through archival footage, interviews with friends, family, and those who worked alongside her. But the director's most effective decision was to allow Diana to narrate her own life story, through the use of an actress reading from transcripts from interviews conducted by writer George Plimpton while they worked together on her autobiography.
Chronicling Vreeland's life from birth through her time as an editor for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and finally, as head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, Vreeland comes across as delightfully droll and eminently quotable. While always entertaining, the doc doesn't attempt at any sort of psychological depth, content to stay on the surface of things. But hey, that's exactly how Diana would have wanted it.
(Screens Friday, April 19, Little 1, 6:30 p.m.)
The National School of the Arts was commissioned by Fidel Castro during the early days of the Cuban Revolution. In that time of hopeful beginnings and romantic ideals, three architects — Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro, and Vittorio Garratti — were given the task of designing a campus that Castro hoped would become home to the greatest art school in the world. Given a practically unlimited budget and complete creative freedom, the buildings they created were themselves works of art. Before construction was finished, the school had become home to a community of student artists of all types. But as Cuba became increasingly totalitarian, creativity and art was no longer an integral part of the plan. Construction of the school was halted, and what existed of the campus was allowed to fall into disrepair as the years passed.
Directors Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray's inspiring and often quite moving history of the school, including recent efforts toward preservation by the World Monument Fund, allows audiences to see the campus in all its glory, as well as the ruin it gradually became. It acts simultaneously as a symbol of what passion and imagination can accomplish, as well as a warning of what can happen when those freedoms are taken away.
(Screens Friday, April 19, Little 5, 6:45 p.m.)
Outside of maybe sound-effects editor, there isn't a behind-the-scenes position on a film set that fascinates me as much as that of the casting director. These men and women call upon a powerful insight that allows them to see an actor's potential, often before the performers themselves are aware of it. This star-studded and slickly directed documentary shines a spotlight on this aspect of the filmmaking process and pays tribute to Marion Dougherty, a pioneer in the field. Dougherty veered from the traditional Hollywood star-making system, and focused on finding real actors, often from the New York theater community, and often not the standard definition of what Hollywood wanted their stars to look like. In so doing, she ended up securing the first roles of an entire generation's worth of important actors, from James Dean to Al Pacino, and she ultimately altered the face of her profession for all time. Unexpectedly emotional by its end, "Casting By" pays tribute to an incredibly influential woman and an unsung hero of the industry.
(Screen Friday, April 19, Little 1, 9:15 p.m.)
"Turn Me On, Dammit!"
Fifteen-year-old Alma has an active and varied sex life, but it's one that she's frustrated to admit exists entirely inside her head. These fantasies incorporate just about everyone she comes into contact with, but most frequently star the main object of her affection, her handsome classmate Artur. The rare story to tackle the subject of teen sexuality from the female perspective, this frequently funny, sometimes quite painful film gets a lot of comedic mileage out of poor Alma's blurred line between fantasy and reality. Lead actress Helene Bergsholm gives a hilarious, charming, and utterly fearless performance, and director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen demonstrates a keen understanding of the way teenagers can sometimes feel like prisoners in their own bodies, completely at the mercy of the hormones raging inside them.
(In Norwegian with English subtitles; screens Friday, April 19, Little 5, 9:30 p.m.)
The first feature from writer/director Jenny Deller is a sensitively drawn coming-of-age story about 13-year-old tomboy Lauduree (Perla Haney-Jardine, demonstrating a talent beyond her years), a budding scientist with an obsession for climate change and conservation. When her flaky mother abandons her to run off and pursue her dream of becoming a make-up artist in California, Lauduree is left in the care of her pragmatic, no-nonsense grandmother (Amy Madigan). This amiable indie film balances a blatant green message with a sweet-natured story, but it's the performances — including Lili Taylor as Lauduree's compassionate science teacher — that stand out the most.
(Screens Saturday, April 20, Little 1, 3:15 p.m.)
"How We Got Away With It"
A group of 30-something friends gather together for their annual lakeside summer vacation, but when an unexpected tragedy occurs, some of them are forced to cover up a deadly secret. I really wanted to like this locally filmed thriller, and it does feature some fine performances and confident direction from first-time helmer Jon Lindstrom. It's also undeniably fun to note the Rochester landmarks that pop up throughout. The problem is that the script too often asks the audience to ignore any concept of how rational people would behave. The characters constantly seem to make the least logical decisions possible. I grew frustrated with the script's reluctance to divulge crucial information, so that by the time it gets around to revealing the (by that point obvious) answers, it was difficult to work up the energy to care.
(Screens Saturday, April 20, Dryden, 3:30 p.m.)
"The Day I Saw Your Heart"
Justine (Mélanie Laurent, "Inglourious Basterds") works as a radiology technician at the local hospital, but prefers clandestinely using the x-ray machines for her personal art projects. She's always been content to drift through life, and has never been able to maintain a romantic relationship. All of her problems, however, seem to stem from her strained relationship with her overly critical, self-involved father, Eli. If she has any hope of finding happiness, it appears she'll have to start by mending their broken relationship.
Blending elements of romantic comedy with dysfunctional family drama, this lively, colorful film is occasionally too quirky for its own good, but it is always entertaining. Director Jennifer Devoldère deftly handles the transition from broad comedic material to the more dramatic moments that come later, and Laurent continues to prove that she deserves to be a huge star.
(In French with English subtitles; screens Saturday, April 20, Dryden 6:30 p.m.)
"A Lot Like You"
Filmmaker Eliaichi Kimaro's intensely personal documentary grew from a desire to explore her roots. Born to a Tanzanian father and Korean mother, but raised in America, Elaichi felt trapped between cultures, truly belonging to none. In an attempt to connect with and understand her heritage, she decided to travel with her parents to visit her father's tribe in the Mt. Kilimanjaro region of Africa. She hoped to gather enough material to make a film out of her experiences.
Her film didn't turn out exactly that way she'd envisioned. When she arrives in Tanzania, she finds herself kept at a distance by her father's family, until one day when she approaches her aunts to talk about their lives, and they open up to her in a way that they never had with anyone before. They speak of a culture's subjugation of women, of female circumcision and forced marriages. Kimaro's sudden connection to the women is deepened by her own background of abuse. A powerful and thought-provoking film exploration of identity and conflicts of culture, her film emerges as one of the highlights of this year's festival.
(Screens Saturday, April 20, Little 1, 9:30 p.m.)
2013 High Falls Film Festival Schedule
Thursday, April 18
9:30-11 a.m.: Informal Coffee Chat with Directors Rochester Plaza, FREE
6:30 p.m.: "Girls in the Band" Little 1 ($15; Q&A to follow)
7 p.m.: "Watchtower" Little 5
9 p.m.-midnight: Opening Night Party Inn on Broadway ($25)
9:15 p.m.: "Facing Mirrors" Little 1
9:30 p.m.: Shorts Program 1: Short Cuts Little 5
Friday, April 19
9:30-11 a.m.: Informal Coffee Chat with Directors Rochester Plaza (Free)
1:15 p.m.: "California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown" Cinema
4 p.m.: "Girls in the Band" Cinema (Q&A to follow)
6:30 p.m.: "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel" Little 1 (Fashion Show to follow)
6:40 p.m.: "The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On" Cinema (Q&A to follow)
6:45 p.m.: "Unfinished Spaces" Little 5
8 p.m.-midnight: Party at the Strathallan (Free)
9:15 p.m.: "Casting By" Little 1
9:30 p.m.: "Turn Me On, Dammit!" Little 5
9:30 p.m.: "Pretty Brutal" Cinema
Saturday, April 20
9-10:15 a.m.: So You Want To Make A Movie? Panel Discussion Little 5 (Free)
9:30-11 a.m.: Informal Coffee Chat with Directors Rochester Plaza (Free)
10:30 a.m.-Noon: Future of Film-The Impact of Digital Media Panel Discussion Little 1 (Free)
11 a.m.: RIT Women of SoFA Little 5 (Meet & Greet to follow in Little Café)
12:30 p.m.: Go Public Project 4 Shorts & Panel Discussion w/Director Little 1
1 p.m.: "Molly Maxwell" Dryden
1:15 p.m.: "The Way to Nowhere Island" Little 5
3:15 p.m.: "Future Weather" Little 1 (Q&A to follow)
3:30 p.m.: Shorts Program 2: Dead Ends Little 5
3:30 p.m.: "How We Got Away With It" Dryden
6 p.m.: "First Comes Love" Little 5
6:30 p.m.: "Margarita" Little 1 (Q&A to follow)
6:30 p.m.: "The Day I Saw Your Heart" Dryden
9 p.m.-midnight: Closing Night Party Potter Peristyle, George Eastman House ($25)
9 p.m.: "A Teacher" Dryden ($15)
9:15 p.m.: "Harisma" Little 5
9:30 p.m.: "A Lot Like You" Little 1 (Q&A to follow)
Sunday, April 21
3:30 p.m.: Audience Choice: Best of the Fest (Documentary) Little 1
6 p.m.: Audience Choice: Best of the Fest (Narrative) Little 1
TICKETS: Unless otherwise noted, all tickets cost $12, and can be purchased at the venues or online at highfallsfilmfestival.com. Students and seniors 65 and older (with IDs) receive $2 discounts on all tickets.
A Film Fanatics Pass, which grants admission to all 27 regular festival screenings, costs $120. An All-Access Film Fanatics Pass, which covers screenings and all parties, costs $170.
VENUES: Little Theatre 240 East Ave. | Dryden Theatre George Eastman House, 900 East Ave. | Cinema Theater 957 S. Clinton Ave. | Rochester Plaza 70 State St. | Inn on Broadway 26 Broadway | The Strathallan 550 East Ave.